I Shall Wear White Flannel Trousers, 8
The two of us rolled out into the kitchen.
"You don't look so good," he said, his hand rubbing my back.
"Because I'm not so good." I spiraled my fingers around my forehead. "It's just that -- I can handle criticism. But not when I'm already feeling drained. Everything in the car emptied me more."
So we decided to walk.
We clopped down the wooden porch steps, and the summer air was pulpy and sweet. The sky a merlot; the stain of peeled grapes. I could feel his thoughtful body beside me. The horizon was a single tongue of flame, above the hospital, above the college, the gas station. And there was danger, sour in my mouth. Not coming from him, because he was cotton and contemplating. It originated in my own hands: I was holding thorns. And I scared myself.
"I'm really tired," I said, my feet touching down on the cement.
My boyfriend took possession of my hand and didn't feel the warning.
His voice was soft. "Sarah, I think I haven't been appreciating you enough," he said.
The sockets of my eyes stung. I swung my head around so he wouldn't see.
His thumb stroked the back of my hand. "I think I've been consumed with school and work."
I was staring at hedges: fat green leaves. Pillowed hills, the cement steps. A garden gnome with a red hat.
"I think I've been taking your presence for granted. . . and I haven't thanked you for your support. I've been missing something right in front of me."
Warmth slithered over my rims, salting my cheeks: invisible in the dark. His words surprised me and unhinged me. I went weak in the knees. And locked my elbow.
But his arm was pliable, moving with his gait. I knew his running shoes were strawberry-colored, almost hot pink. Very clean. I felt how his legs swept loose and long as he walked, his body close to the ground. He moved like a slippered fox. A sinuous interweave, his calves lithe. I myself danced high, rebounding to heaven. And my sneakers were rough, purple. Covered with dust.
"Naw, you're good," I said, my voice mousey.
"No, Sarah. I honestly don't think I have expressed gratitude enough for you."
We rounded the corner, walking the sidewalk of Route 9. Cars rushed by. Dragons of red, wiggling ribbons of light. Now I wanted him to know I was tearing, so I breathed in through my nose. The intake was crusty. But he didn't hear me.
So I said, "It's okay."
We looped around the neighborhoods. Maybe for an hour. He talked more than I did.
He sounded reflective, hopeful, methodical. And I was floating, in a space that perhaps both of us could not reach.
"It's funny. There's a part of me that loves you and is disinterested in myself. That actually is excited at the idea of you meeting someone new. Maybe someone better-looking."
I shook myself awake. "What are you saying? No. You are so handsome." I had been looking up, and the sky was lit with a single solemn star. "What are we even talking about?" I linked my arms through his, and squeezed. Almost ironing his shirt into his skin.
"Maybe someone more masculine."
"No," forcefully. "You're exactly what I like. You're my ideal balance of masculine and feminine. I don't want any ultra-masculine macho type. You're the perfect blend for me."
"I'm just conjuring alternate realities again. I want you to have the best of everything in life," he said. "Even if it's not me."
"Well, I feel the same way about you. That's the comrade side of our bond."
"But I'm finding myself jealous of these imaginary people."
"And that's the romantic side," I said. "So don't. Look, there's Venus."
We walked past a church slowly, and the sign was in Afrikaans. The stained glass windows were perforated with light, like the rainbowy side of a salmon, like the leaping nostalgia of a Christmas tree. I glanced over at him, and watched his dragonfly eyes. His brows like mountain peaks, coal triangles.
"How many constellations can you name?"
"Just a few," he said.
"You say that," I laughed, "and they'll still be the ones that I can name."
"I've just thought of something, Sarah."
"That when you say you're tired" -- my boyfriend spun it out in careful syllables -- "I think what you're saying is that you're not feeling well emotionally."
"It's the same thing as when I say 'I'm hurting'."
"Because your words are never masks. It's what I love about you," I said. "And what I aspire towards myself. Remember on our first date, when we sat on the picnic bench, and I only wore my jean jacket? I wore it because it was prettier than my winter one, you know. And then I said I would never admit to being cold. And you just said straight-out, without even trying to be tough, that you were freezing and had no shame in appearing weak. Well, I'm not like that. It's hard -- really hard -- for me to say I'm hurting."
"But you have to try," he said. "Please try. It would help me -- us -- so much."
"I think I could learn," I said. "I do find that when I make myself vulnerable to you, things tend to work out. We move forward."
"I try to be gentle," he said, picking up my fingers.
He kissed the back of my hand. "And I will try harder," holding my hand against his chest.
"And I will try to live closer to the surface of my skin," I said. "I never thought before, of the connection between saying I'm tired, and saying I'm hurt. But you're right. When I'm exhausted it's often because I'm going through something emotionally. You know how some people can get headaches if they're stressed, or stomachaches? When I'm worn down by life I can feel like I have the flu and no energy. Though sometimes I am just tired -- pure and simple."
The conversation continued, soft and luminous, cavernous with revelations: stalagmites and diamonds of insight. I could tell that my boyfriend was climbing upwards. Walking in his way, every step even and silky. But on another track, I was staying low; my mind thinking, "No. This is all coming too late." Deep inside, I was cracking into lime and other layers. Because sometimes he had not been gentle. And eventually my arm loosened through his crook, till I slipped from him entirely. And I was swinging free, my hands by my sides.
I snapped a leaf off a tree.
"We've shown each other our darkest places recently." I tore the leaf apart in my hands. "Places we haven't approached before now. And we're doing a good job, being tender towards each other."
"This is good," he said. "This is a very good conversation."
I shook my head.
He said, "No?"
"But sometimes you have not been gentle."
We rounded the corner.
I dropped all the leaf pieces to the ground.
I could see his house. "And there is a small part of me that wants this to be over," I blurted out.
Tentatively, he asked, "What over?" Then assured and hopeful: "This conversation?"
"No. The relationship."
A galaxy of seconds.
He said, "-- Well, that's scary."
His voice was not rough. It was sloughed off -- like the viscous inside of the plant stalk, when I had taken my thumbnail and scraped it down a pokeberry's green. There had been nothing between his voice and his heart.
But there was the house. The front steps.
We went up the steps.
We walked into the kitchen.
He closed the kitchen door behind us and turned towards me. I sat on the bench.
He looked down at the tiles. He brought his hands to his lips, as if in prayer.
My boyfriend was thinking in rescuing terms, I knew. In algorithms. He was tunneling deep into gears, wending his way through the pipey places of mind and heart, his hands getting bloody while looking for us both. But his face was immobile: this was all taking place below his skull.
He lowered his hands and, in one graceful movement, sat down behind me. His body cupped me, a sweet pod around milkweed. His hand was water on my thigh. "What would help you right now, Sarah? What do you want to do?"
"Mm," I thought. "I want to eat French fries."
"You want to eat French fries?"
"Yes." I cuddled my head under his chin.
"Well, we did miss dinner," he said. "We can order French fries."
"I like the fat and salt. And the carbs are stabilizing."
"Okay. Yes. Don't you want to eat anything else, though? Pizza?"
"No, just French fries."
"Okay, we can order fries."
He stood up and I watched him take out his phone.
I loved my boyfriend's fingers, brown as a snail. He tapped the number; made the call. I remembered that his fingers were the only thing I touched on our first date. He had put his hands over the heat as we sat in the stalling car, after our freezing hike. I reached over, and brushed his knuckles. I saw one hangnail, and the beautiful half-moons of his cuticles. I withdrew myself quickly. "I like your hands," I said, crunching my shoulders up. Then I added, "I'd love to see you again." And he made me wait the longest one-sixth of a minute before he said he would, too.
After he placed the order, he slipped into his black coat; it made a shivery sound. "Do you want to come with me? Or stay here?"
"Stay here, I think."
"I'll be back." He leaned over me, his hand on my shoulder blade. He dropped a kiss on the part in my hair. White thorax between wings.
"My Superman," I said.
Then he closed the back door and was gone.
A drip tanged against the tin sink. I glanced down at the floor. Rubble on the linoleum. The faucet dripped again. The light bulb above my head was whining: wheels of electricity.
And I found I could only think: his warm body was stepping somewhere on the cement, lightly pressing, and the sky was a dreadful blue above him. And I didn't know if his hands were in his pockets.
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He asked suddenly, "Are you going soon?"
I nodded once.
"-- Will you snuggle with me one last time before you go?"
"Yes," I said.